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COVID-19 Illini Basketball

Battle of the Unexpected Warriors

Nobody predicted Michigan would win the B1G this season. No one foresaw Mike Smith and Hunter Dickinson rocketing from unknown & under-recruited to prime time stardom.

If none of you predicted the 76-53 final score of Illini at Wolverines 2021, you’re forgiven. Weird things happen when you remove a primary character from a plot. The story veers off its predicted path. And here we are: Illinois without Ayo Dosunmu is playing like Michigan without Bill Frieder.

All photos from the UM game by Kelsea Ansfield, who is great.

The Chaundee Brown airball free-throw was Michigan’s night in a nutshell. Unexpected, embarrassing and not living up to the earned reputation. It seemed as though the god of basketball squatted over Crisler’s domed roof and squeezed off a giant fart.

How the hell did this team fool the entire United States into believing? How did they wipe the Schott with Ohio State? Where the fuck did this game come from?

H/T Dan O’Brien

SILENCING THE CRITICS

It was fair, as of Tuesday morning, to criticize this Illini team as overrated. You could say they hadn’t earned the lofty seeding “experts” project for The Tournament. After all, they played a cakewalk B1G schedule and barely survived some of those cupcakes. They got trounced by Baylor. They beat Iowa with one Fredrick tied behind its back. They lost to four middling league teams. They played the bottom five teams twice each, and won all ten games.

So they’re 5-4 against the B1G’s not worst teams.

But fair’s fair. The B1G standings say Iowa and Michigan are the top two teams not named ILLINOIS. The Illini beat fourth-place Purdue in their only contest, and Ohio State has lost seven times in conference, including stinkers at Northwestern and Minnesota.

You now have Illini Report’s permission to believe in this team. #YouGoGirl #DoIGetACookie

THE SALARIES, UNCAPPED

And so let us now face an elephant that has finally, at long last, wandered into our room. For the first time in Andre Curbelo’s memory, other teams will want to poach from the Illini coaching staff. (Does Belo even know that three Big 12 coaches once led this program, and that two of them left town of their own volition?)

Rumors began circulating this week about teams who’d like to hire Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman for head coaching positions. And thus, it’s time for Josh Whitman to decide whether he wants Illinois to compete off the court.

Let’s say NIU offers Chin $450,000 to take over from Mark Montgomery. Assuming a five year contract, that would be enough to pay a few tuitions and retire to a modest home. The risk of ruining a career in DeKalb is significant, so it’s not a no-brainer that Chin would go. The DIA response should be to equal whatever NIU offers, with some added performance bonuses. Give Chin reason to stay until a competitive program comes ‘a callin’. Big Boy programs lose assistants to mid-majors, as Montgomery and Howard Moore have shown. But the Blue Bloods also keep their staves intact & cohesive by paying them a lot of money.

Pay these men whatever they ask.

Orlando Antigua will be offered more money than Chin. He’s already been fired from a head coaching position, but athletic directors will have noticed Andre Curbelo, Kofi Cockburn and Andrez Feliz — three drastically different players who all, in their own way, changed the Illini program dramatically.

How much is it worth to have Ayo, Kofi & Belo in Champaign? Is it worth $2 Million per year? That seems like a bargain. I suggest the figure is more like $20 million. #1 seeds are worth a shitload of money. Teams that consistently compete for top talent and conference championships can, essentially, print their own cash. If it takes another few million to keep this staff intact, and they’re all into it, Josh should forget everything he learned from Ron Guenther, and find his checkbook.

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Illini basketball

Los Matadores

WEEEEEE!

If we were Gonzaga, we’d feel this way most mornings. Playing lousy teams is an excellent way to ensure wins. Competing against matador defenders ensures that your offensive sets will look great!

That’s why Mark Few and Ggreggg Marshall aren’t looking for jobs in competitive conferences. It’s why Bryce Drew may learn, over the next few years, that money isn’t everything.

Michigan stinks. They’ve got the worst defense in the Big Ten.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, statistically speaking.  Michigan can’t stop other teams from scoring, and they can’t rebound on those rare occasions when the other team misses.

John Beilein laughed about it, noting that Michigan didn’t get schooled on the boards because Illinois didn’t miss any shots (64% on twos and another 64% from three).

Beilein also readily admitted that Kipper Nichols was nowhere to be found on the Wolverine’s scouting report. Wouldn’t it be great if John Groce were so candid?

Now that Bo Ryan is gone, there’s no contest about who’s my favorite B1G coach. Like John Groce, Beilein is known more for his teams’ offensive capabilities. Defense? Not so good.

 

Te’Jon Lucas has been the proverbial back-up QB for the last three months. Now he’s the actual back-up QB, and based on the minutes he’s played in the last two games, moving in on the starting QB position.

Compare his Wednesday stats to Tracy Abrams’s. Lucas’s ATO was 8-to-1 in 23 minutes. Abrams was 3-to-1 in 24 minutes.

Each had a steal. Abrams grabbed two rebounds and Lucas one. Abrams committed three fouls and Lucas zero.

Lucas didn’t miss any shots. Tracy was 1-of-3 from the field and 2-of-3 on FTs. Lucas didn’t get to the line.

Each made a thrilling no look pass for an assist.

Kipper Nichols is unlikely to live up to the outrageous expectations foisted upon him by demented fans. Since joining the program, he’s been the fantasized savior among people with pseudonymous message-board identities & access to the Internet.

And yet, every time Nichols touched the ball on Wednesday, something really exciting happened.

Whether it was yanking a rebound from the hands of an opponent, offensive rebounds and put-backs, or nailing shots from the low post or the arc; Kipper dazzled the crowd of 11,404.

Dazzling a crowd is exactly what John Groce needs to keep his job. And he also needs about four thousand more people per game. And he needs those people to pay more for tickets.

The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, to its credit, has become far more flexible, in recent years, about ticket prices and packages. Ticket supply continues to exceed demand, so DIA dropped prices dramatically. Good for them, but bad for the bottom line.

Thrilling players like Kipper Nichols and Te’Jon Lucas sell tickets. Think of the days when Bruce Douglas lobbed & Efrem Winters dunked.

Indiana gets 50% more people per game. They probably don’t sell tickets for $6.78/per, either.

Indiana gets 50% more people per game. They probably don’t sell tickets for $6.78/per, either.

Jalen Coleman-Lands connected on 4-of-5 threes, for 12 points. His passing remains underrated (4 assists). Maverick Morgan also dished four assists from the center position, and converted eight of his nine attempts from the floor.

With Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne combining for exactly zero minutes, one wonders whether Groce will contract his rotation to the degree that mentor Thad Matta usually does … something like six or seven players per game.

Probably not.

But as long as The Producers continue to produce, the non-producers are likely relegated to cheerleading and spectating.

Illinois was lousy on defense, and that’s okay. Most people don’t care about defense, just so long as the home team leads by 15 to 20 points throughout the second half.

If he can’t ensure that his team connects on 64% of shots night-in/night-out, John Groce may want to hire a defensive mastermind, like Chris Lowery or Wayne McClain, to instill defensive toughness in his matadors.

Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman dunks over Malcolm Hill

Categories
Illini basketball

Whew.

Illinois NCAA Tournament chances took a huge hit when Illinois’ NCAA Tournament aspirations remain alive today, after a gutty defensive war in which Our Side wore down Their Side by sheer numbers.

Ahmad Starks saved the day for the second consecutive game. In both instances, he provided the level head. He was the guy who’s seen it all, good and (mostly, at Oregon State) bad. Once again, Starks was the unflappable assassin, almost disinterested. He played as if he were already dead, and you couldn’t hurt him anymore.

If Michigan had more players, Michigan wins. Our roster is depleted, bad. Their roster is depleted worse.

Spike Albrecht and Zak Irvin were awesome on defense. John Beilein’s offense was splendid to see. It’s just a pleasure to watch his teams — whether they play five future pros or a band of Rudies.

Albrecht seemed like a Rudy during his coming out party in the 2013 National Championship Game. But he’s not a one trick pony. His defense stifled Illinois’ perimeter for 38 1/2 minutes.

Max Bielfeldt did Peoria proud in his final State Farm Center appearance. His 12 points and 7 rebounds nearly cost Illinois athletics a basketball season. Oh, the irony.

Michigan’s communications staff didn’t make either player available to media after the game, instead offering Andrew Dakich as team spokesman.* Wolverine SID Tom Wywrot couldn’t make the trip due to a sinus infection. His deputies may not have realized the significance of this game for Bielfeldt.

It’s possible that Spike simply didn’t want to talk. John Beilein said Albrecht took the loss hard, and personally.

I say bully for Spike Albrecht. He’s exactly the kind of guy you’d want on your team.

I thought most of the Michigan team played with exceptional poise, for much of the night. The lone exception may be Aubrey Dawkins. He was targeted & pilloried by the Orange Krush, and he wilted.  The adult beat writers from Michigan’s traveling media pool did not notice. Their student reporters could talk about nothing else. I guess it’s a generational thing.

It worked out for Illinois. If you’re into bad sportsmanship, celebrate.

Elsewhere in the student section, one dweeb kept shouting at Spike Albrecht even as Kendrick Nunn walked to the line to shoot crucial late game free-throws. And yes, just as Kendrick tensed to release the ball, that dweeb shouted “SPIKE!”

That was Kendrick’s lone charity miss of the night. It nearly cost Illinois the game.

Fortunately, the only thing Illinois had to do to win: never give up. They simply wore the Woverines out.

John Groce wouldn’t say it in his post-game presser, but the reason Illinois won is the same reason that U.S. Grant beat Robert E. Lee: In the end, there weren’t enough bodies on the rebel side.

That’s fine by me. Whatever it takes.

Losing to Michigan last night = N.I.T. The Illini resume simply isn’t that strong.

Winning, on the other hand, put them inarguably into the NCAA conversation.

Speaking of Dakiches, I had a funny moment with Leroy William Rice prior to the game, and Dan Dakich might want to know about it. Ray’s grandfather had some choice words for Dakich, who’d referred to Rayvonte as “stupid” and “idiot” according to the Rice entourage.

Leroy walks with a cane. He gripped that cane tightly as he spoke his venom. I couldn’t quite make out all the words, but the idea was that Dan Dakich will need new knees if he comes within Leroy’s range.

I don’t doubt it.

Leroy’s grandson beat Michigan’s ass in the final showdown. He wasn’t as gimpy as his wizened relative, but he was a lot gimpier than the Ray you’ve known.

The previous entry on these pages suggested that Ray might not be 100% Ray on his return. It also posited that Kendrick Nunn will cut you, without compunction. Both proved true against the Wolverines.

Ray was not in sync, offensively. Not even with himself.

But where he could make a difference, Ray made a difference. In the end, Ray won the game for Illinois. It was almost like a Harry Potter story. You knew what was coming.

Ray and Kendrick were badgers. They displayed the anti-social tenacity of the wolverine. They were Spartan warriors with hawk eyes. In a buckeyeshell, they looked like all-conference performers. Kendrick from halftime on, and Ray during the endgame.

As hard as Michigan played on defense, Kendrick and Ray fought for this game as well.

That goes for Nnanna Egwu, too.  Egwu didn’t score until overtime, but he was everywhere in overtime. It’s important to consider those two points jointly, together.

The point is that he never stopped trying. He never gave up.

Nnanna Egwu has been asked about his “April” quote a lot. It was probably based on a genuine Egwu quote, but has now devolved, in the cynical world of promotions & marketing, into a PR stunt. But the fact is that Egwu plays that way, all the time, regardless of promotions & marketing people.

 

*Andrew Dakich played only five minutes, all in the first half. I didn’t stick around to hear what he had to say. I don’t blame him for his dad, but I wouldn’t rely on his insight either.